One of my all-time favourite songs is the 1954 Nat King Cole rendition of ‘Smile’. I remember my Father playing it and softly singing along when I was a little girl, even then I thought it was odd. My father was melancholy and rarely smiled. It was as if he had a secret side to him, one he was unable to display to anyone, even his only child.
I inherited his temperament with one distinct difference – I am a smiler.
Smiling has always been my way of meeting people. Traveling in foreign countries, walking into a meeting or class filled with strangers, even standing in the checkout line at the supermarket – I smile. I stop to play with a baby in a stroller, or pet a dog being walked on a trail I am walking and I smile. It just comes naturally. Most of the time people smile back. Sometimes they wave or say “hi”. And frequently we stop and chat for a bit. We don’t know each other’s politics and don’t care. We share a bit of our lives, complain good-naturedly and laugh. And when our brief encounter is over, we part company feeling revived, refreshed and renewed. Simply glad to be alive!
I treasure these moments. And as a ‘solo ager’ – someone with no family and having outlived most of her friends (the few still around are not local) – they are my lifeline. For a short time I feel warmth and safety. What is that famous quote from A Streetcar Named Desire? “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”
Enter 2020 – the year of the pandemic. Loneliness, always a strong presence, has become my constant companion. There is no one who makes a check-in call. No texts saying hello. No Zoom family get togethers. Days go by without any human contact. There is no jail cell, but it is nonetheless solitary confinement.
Of course, there are still the trips to the supermarket and the walks on the trail. But there is one difference. Masks!
I am not disputing the need for them. I wear one whenever I go out, and have several with different designs. And I am fortunate. I live in a town where people willingly wear them and practice social distancing. Shops provide hand sanitiser, gloves and masks at the entrance. Almost everyone seems to understand that we are truly ‘our brother’s keeper’.
But in that moment when I slip the loops over my ears and carefully adjust the mask over my face, I forgo any opportunity for a spontaneous meeting – those few precious moments of comradeship, laughter and warmth.
No one can see me smile.
And I can not see anyone else smile.
What happens to our world when there are no smiles? When eyes peer over a piece of cloth and faceless people move carefully among each other? When fear of even the slightest contact turns us into ghosts of our former selves?
Nowadays I hurry to finish my shopping. I walk just for the exercise. There is no opportunity for a chance meeting or spontaneity. No exchange of pleasantries, talk about the weather, the football game or the baby. No sound of laughter. No handshakes or hugs. Not even a nod of recognition. My voice is muffled. I am invisible.
My smile was like an open door. “Come on in and visit for a bit.” It didn’t matter your age, gender or race. Somehow there was always something to talk about. Together we found common ground, a recognition of our humanity. Nowadays, my mask reminds people to keep their distance. And their mask does the same.
I think we are all suffering from smile deprivation. The tension is palpable. The distance is more than six feet – it might as well be miles! And at least for the foreseeable future it will stay that way.
It’s nearly impossible to make a new friend or even an acquaintance when I wear a mask. It’s my smile that invites a handshake or a hug. When my smile is reciprocated, we share a special moment in time. It feels like the warmth of the sun.
A smile reminds me there is kindness in the world. It inspires good deeds and a helping hand.
So what do I do now in this age of Covid-19? This age of masks?
I wish I had an answer. I don’t think there is any substitute for a smile. My loneliness and feeling of estrangement grows by the day.
Zoom and other technologies are poor substitutes. My only hope is to ‘hang in there’ and wait it out. For how long? After all, I am 75.
How ironic it would be for the woman who lived by a smile to die without one!
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